My friend Dahnon, the “salafi” of free thinking

In the old days in Damascus, Dahnon (as all his friends used to call him: too many Mohameds around!) and I used to sit and engage for hours and hours in discussions about poetry, literature, philosophy. He didnt` have an easy life: he comes from a huge family from Idlib and studied at the Faculty of engineer, despite having a great inclination for literature and poetry. He used to write poems and novels. Despite his passion for literature, he tried to find his own way to make a living by doing different jobs. Life is hard for the “shabab” (youth) in Syria, especially for those like Dahnon, gifted, talented, but without any “wasta” (recommendation).

Yesterday night I got the terrible news that Dahnon was arrested, while he was at a demonstration in Midan, central Damascus. He was a contributor to Lebanese publication as-Safir  where he used to write in the section  dedicated to youth culture.

Dahnon is not a salafi, he is not a terrorist or an agitator. He owns few weapons, though: his words and his thoughts. The Syrian secret service, or whoever arrested him, wants to take these “weapons” away from him, as from the other Syrian people who are only asking to think freely and express themselves.

A massacre was committed yesterday in Idlib, Dahnon`s hometown, while he was arrested. We dont know the exact number, but it`s something outrageous, around 200. Nobody can verify, cause independent reporters are barred from Syria. Those who are inside, like Dahnon, fighting with their words for their freedom, are arrested and prevented from speaking. Who`s gonna tell us the truth if people like Dahnon are taken?

Who`s gonna defend Syria if Syria does not defend people like Dahnon, literature-lovers, free thinkers and not salafis?

How are we expected to believe  the official “salafi conspiracy and armed groups” theory, when each day we see people armed like Dahnon, with thoughts and words, being arrested and silenced?

* A note on the margin: as-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper Dahnon is a contributor to, is traditionally a pro-Syrian regime publication. The last capital injection also confirmed this position. Few days ago, his main investor, Talal Salman wrote an interesting article where he asked the bloodshed and the arbitrary arrests to stop in Syria.  He asks if Bashar al -Assad would be able to put the interests of his country (al watan) above his regime`s (al nizam) interests. I think the answer to this question is pretty clear now that so many old friends are “un-friending” Syria. See also what Saudi backed London based Al Hayat newspaper says today about Hamas and the rumors that his leader Meshaal will be leaving Syria soon (his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzuk, is reported to have left already  for Jordan where he is getting hospitality in exchange of media silence).

Palestian Authority shuts down Al Jazeera

Palestian Authority (PA) announced yesterday that Al Jazeera broadcasting operations in the West Bank would be suspended.  Al Jazeera stated through her press office to be “astonished” at this decision and the consequent intention of PA to take legal action against  the channel.

In yesterday press release, the station reports that “the Palestian Authority has stated its decisions are in response to Al Jazeera reporting the accusations made by Secretary-general of the Fatah movement Mr. Farouk Kaddoumi against the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his advisor Mohammed Dahlan. Mr Kaddoumi accused both leaders of being aware of an Israeli plan to kill the late president Yasser Arafat.”

The Guardian reports that a Palestian official speaking on conditions of anonymity said that Palestian President Abbas was “outraged by an Al Jazeera talkshow, broadcast yesterday, that dealt with harsh accusations against PA leader by a long-time rival in his Fatah movement. The rival, Farouk Kaddoumi, claimed -without presenting evidence- that Abbas had a role in the 2004 death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat“.

While Al Jazeera states to be “surprised that it has been targeted by this decision while many other Arab and international media organisation also broadcast the Kaddoumi’s allegations”, the key question is rather to be addressed to the PA. Its behaviour is like the past 15 years of broadcasting in the Arab world have never existed. Since its launch in 1996, Al Jazeera committed itself to be reporting independently from governments, and it has built its success on “the opinion and counter opinion” strategy. Now, somebody can argue that to be really “balanced” they should have interviewed President Abbas and give him the floor after he was accused by Kaddoumi. But this is not the point: the PA has always had a very controversial relation with Al Jazeera, trying to censor the channel and to treat it as it was a “state channel” to be oriented by the goverment. Even Arafat complained more than once with Al Jazeera and shut down the channel operations in the West Bank which were lately restored.

True, Al Jazeera has been very close to Hamas during the last period, particularly during the last Gaza crisis in December 2008. But, is this a good reason to be shut down? Is the PA strategically doing the right thing when it shuts down the station or is it, on the contrary, contributing to strenghten Al Jazeera popularity in the West Bank and all across the Arab world by trying to censor it?

Actually, the PA did a very good PR job for Al Jazeera yesterday.

War on words. Arab media on Obama’s speech in Cairo..and the winner is: Twitter!

Just finished a couple of hours marathon split between TV and computer screen to follow Obamas first live speech addressed to the Muslim world from a Muslim-majority country, Egypt. I’ve tried to follow the speech live on the Internet, through the WhiteHouse’s YouTube channel , following at the same time reactions on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Of course the two most important Arab media have a very different view on President Obama‘s words, even if it’s not always through words that they express this view. Take Al Jazeera for example:  since the very end of Obama’s talk in Cairo has started broadcasting two different feature stories. First one is what’s now happening in Qalqiliya. While Obama was mentioning Palestine and Israel and  the right of both to leave in peace and  have each one its own state, the reality of Palestine is that Palestinians are killing each others in internal fights. Al Jazeera did not say openly that this internal fights are US (and Europe)’s fault, cause they have never recognised Hamas‘ right to govern Palestine after they won the elections.   But the mere fact of showing the images of what’s happening in Palestine, right after Obama spoke of Palestine and peace, is eloquent and doesnt’ need more words to be said. Also right now, in the news bullettin, Al Jazeera is presenting as headline news Obama’s speech in Cairo as first, and Qalqiliya as second. Do we need more words than those justaxposed images to understand what Al Jazeera thinks about Obama?

On the other hand, Al Arabiya. They have a very different tone from Al Jazeera, quiet and very analytic. However, all the analysis are positive. The sheikh who spoke from Saudi Arabia was very optimistic and labelled Obama’s language as “new language” (at the same time, an Egyptian guest on Al Jazeera was saying exactly the contrary: “same old language” used by Bush, words like “civilization”). Generally speaking, even after Obama’s speech was over, Al Arabiya went on (and it’s still going on) with analysis, collecting different views, etc. Do you remember who was the first Arab channel to get an interview with President Obama? Well, that’s the answer to Al Arabiya’s coverage of today.

Obama mentioned many points in his speech, but which ones are picked up by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, even if with different angles? Number one, the Palestinian issue. Reasonable. Without finding a solution to this, the other points are useless for the Arabs. Number two,  religious tolerance and minorities. Number three, women issue. Somebody on Al Jazeera also remarked the importance of the educational point mentioned by Obama. Good. But who between them would have stayed a bit more on democracy in the Arab world? Obama mentioned the need to open to democracy, not through wars -but not even with internal coercion-. He was not that bold and didnt’ give the names, but -guess what- this is a whole chapter rather than a simple point for Arab media to open the discussion. I am hoping that at least Faysal Qassem will pick up this point and make a whole episode on this! If not him,  then who?!

While zapping in between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya during Obama’s speech and trying to pick up the nuances in their coverage, I had hundreds of Tweets pulling out from my computer screen. Including people watching the speech from Israel, giving their opinions, translating things from Hebrew.  Twitters written by Elizrael were very helpful.  Neither Al Jazeera nor Arabiya were ready to pick up this energy and different views coming from Twitter live. Projects like Meedan of live translation Arabic-English and viceversa were helping. People were helping to understand, through Global Voices community. An incredible compilation of information, discussions, live translation, different opinions.

Obama spoke, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya listened. Twitter (and the Internet) won.

Ghassan Bin Geddu among olive trees..

Two days ago, while zapping on Arab TV channels, I saw a very curious reportage broadcasted on Al Jazeera. Ghassan Bin Geddu, Beirut bureau chief of Al Jazeera Tv channel and host of the flagship talk show Hiwar Maftouh (Open dialogue), sitting in the countryside with Hamas people, masked and armed, talking about Gaza, resistance, war. The interview set -the countryside, peaceful, among olive trees- looked almost  “surrealistic”  if compared to the contents of the speech and, most of all, to the “outfits” of the people -kind of guerilla style-. Once again, Ghassan Bin Geddu -who is a very popular character in Al Jazeera– has made a “journalistic scoop” by interviewing those Hamas people, which adds to the many others he did in the past (and can increase his reputation of being “close” to Islamist movements). The reportage looked as a masterpiece in terms of setting, birds singing and nature flourishing and those masked men with guys. I wish I had a copy and could listen to it all! And still wonder why no Western media (TV or press) is talking about those kind of stuff or analysing it…

Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Gaza after Israeli attacks

I am currently out in Amman and I am listening to Hassan Nasrallah‘s speech which is “mubasher”, live, from Beirut. He is speaking from a football stadium in Beirut which is overwhelmed by people. Lebanon, as Egypt, today is striking as a form of protest against Israeli attacks over Gaza. Many people are gathering in the stadium and we can see national flags of Lebanon, Palestine and Hezbollah‘s party yellow flags. Songs from Hezbollah’s resistance are heard everywhere. Al Manar, Hezbollah’s Tv channel which is banned in Europe, is broadcasting the event live. Before Hassan Nasrallah’s speech, the cameras were filming only the crowd and the flags and, even when somebody was speaking from the stage preparing the audience for the party leader’s speech, the cameras kept on filming the crowd, never the stage (the voice speaking over the images sometimes is repeating words like”maut li Israil, maut li Amrika”, death to Israel, death to America).

This situation changes only when Hassan Nasrallah appears (no stage supposed to be given to any other but the party leader, this is the message transmitted by the images). He is live, but he is speaking from another place, not from the stage in the stadium. Behind him, we can see that the words “victory to Gaza” are written. When he speaks, the camera is only for him. He has a charismatic power and his speech is in perfect “fusah”, the classical arabic, just very few words in lebanese dialect. He begins the speech in the Islamic way, by greeting in the name of God, and then starts to evocate powerful words that touch the hearth of Muslims everywhere. Like ummah, the islamic community.

Nasrallah evocates the ummah, and reminds the Lebanese people that they are a part of this ummah (which indirectly means that they are directly involved in this tragedy). The message is clear: this is a new 2006 war happening. In fact he reminds them that they know very well the meaning of being attacked, of finding their houses destroyed and their children killed. He states that Gaza is not alone, because it is a part of this bigger ummah. Then he starts his speech, which is more than a speech. It is a real warning against certain powers in the Arab region. In another way, we can say that he is mentioning the “conditions” to be respected by the Lebanese governments, other Arab governments and finally the US if they want Hezbollah to stay out of this (in a military way, i guess).

Here the main points of his speech, which are at the same time the warnings and the conditions he is dictating.

First one is the warning addressed to the Lebanese government and its president Michel Slemain. Nasrallah invites the president to take a bold position in front the other Arab governments in the upcoming Cairo summit of the Arab League. The message to the lebanese government (supported by Western governments) is clear and sounds mostly like a threat. Lebanon should be closer to Gaza and to the Palestianian resistence and be against any other kind of position. He clearly refers to Egypt and the clear position the country took by closing the border with Gaza.

The second warning  is of course addressed to “some Arab governments” as he calls them without mentioning them openly, i.e. the governments that are not doing anything effective but taking a silent position which sounds  more as a silent agreement with Israel for having attacked Gaza- or, at least, nothing that takes a sharp position rather than condemning-. He invites them to a “real reaction” instead of talking just words in a summit. Doesnt’ specify what this “real reaction” should be. But it’s clear that Nasrallah is taking a very tough position, as he did in the past, against many Arab governments, particularly the Gulf (and Saudi Arabia in particular).

Thirdly, he talks directly to America. When he mentions America, he starts to look at the camera as if Obama, the new elected US president, was there to listen. He seems to address directly to him -even if not mention his name- when he says “we want to see your political program, your political position” and adds that he doesn’t care about colors being yellow, red, black (clearly referring to the skin of the new president and the hope that his colour and background could help him understanding better). Again, he adds that he only cares about the political program and he only wants to see results on this topic. He also adds that America keeps on saying that the problem with Hamas is that it is an islamic party with an islamic goal, while at the same time America doesnt care about the islamic party which is ruling in Afghanistan or the one which the Iraqi president is belonging to. He states that the real reason behind American refusal of Hamas is not linked to religion at all. the real reason, which is also the one for refusing Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, is their political programs that touch the core of US interest in the Middle East. He says that they want a “real independence” for the Arab region, something that is  very much against US interest.

“Gaza will not stay alone in its resistance”, he says. What does this mean? does this mean that Hezbollah will actively support Hamas in Gaza? does this mean a new war like the july 2006 involving Lebanon and Hezbollah?

The fact that Nasrallah, in his rhetoric, is focusing a lot and stressing a lot on the july 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah is a leading factor that helps us to imagine that behind his speech there is also a kind of “war declaration”, or at least a warning. It’s not unlike to imagine such a scenario.

From the media point of view, the coreography of the speech was perfectly suiting Hezbollah’s rhetoric of uniting people together and calling upon resistance against Israel and America who don’t want to see  a united Arab ummah  in the Middle East.

Nasrallah also accused -without telling its name openly- “an Arab Tv ” station of having called him “a demon” and of portraying him in a bad way. It was a kind of “warning”, too, to Al Arabiya television and the country that it represents, Saudi Arabia, which is the first “enemy” of Hezbollah party. This also reminds us to which extent Arab media are still very polarized in a political way and still very partisan, far from representing just a “commercial market” as many of them would wish to be portayed.